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Article written by Ivan Tennant for Property Week magazine

Londoners have been impressed with the success of the Notting Hill Carnival; the event was cited as an opportunity for London to demonstrate it is still capable of celebrating the city, and its multicultural personality, despite the recent riots. In many ways it was perfectly timed to come a few weeks after the riots to provide an essential fillip to the city, de-moralised following the destruction.

The impact of cultural events such as these is difficult to measure and yet, for many people, it is one of the most valued part of their lives. While the short term benefit of the Carnival following the riots is in the spotlight now, the long term benefits of the event, spreading a belief in multicultural Britain as well as the more practical benefits to business and tourism, is surely where the major impact resides. The success of the Carnival should therefore make us pause to consider whether more robust policing and harsh sentences are only way to tackle the underlying issues that caused the riots.

Authorities have a tendency not to take cultural forms of civic mending seriously because of the difficulty with measuring impact; yet, for David Cameron, promoting ‘well-being’ is supposedly a key part of the way we build thriving, successful communities. Cultural activity is one of the main tools we have in achieving contentment with our lives and the places where we live. Indeed, it may be mobilised to tackle the very causes of the riots themselves, feeling of alienation among young people, low civic awareness, high youth unemployment, poor skills and the lack of capacity within many disadvantaged communities to engage in civic activity. It is these problems that need to be addressed if people are to start to put their communities first, rather than themselves. Yet it is an area the government seems nonchalant about.

People must be allowed to find their route to productive and worthwhile employment, and increasingly this may lead us away from conventional channels. The coalition’s conservative instincts in the classroom have closed their minds to imaginative solutions. The withdrawal of funding from Creative Partnerships and Find Your Talent programmes has been widely lamented.  The programme provided a very practical ways for people from disadvantaged backgrounds to access creative industries and thus establish routes to employment and personal fulfilment that more conventional forms of training failed to do. This programme should be brought back with special attention paid to those groups responsible for the worst of the rioting. 

A sustainable source of funding for locally based cultural projects should be identified that will allow people to celebrate their communities and engage in urban mending. The Community Infrastructure Levy, included in the current Localism Bill, allows for a proportion to be spent locally. Some of this money should be opened up to ‘participatory budgeting.’ Here, the community itself gets a direct say in how money should be spent. If young people were actively encouraged to get involved in this process, this would give them a stake in society and encourage them to recognise they have a means of making things happen for themselves. Connected with this, there is an opportunity for marginalised groups, for example some young ‘NEET’ people, to participate in Neighbourhood Planning activity as a form of civic apprenticeship to enable them to develop talents that may help them access employment and built their networking and basic skills. Neighbourhood plans offer a very real way for the more human aspects of community building to come to the fore. The more decisions are locally based, and closer to the people who will be affected by the changes, the more ‘cultural’ they will become.

The riots took place in Hackney, Tottenham and Salford; these are some of the most deprived parts of the UK. While the policy may seem worthwhile, it has been widely observed that many communities do not have the capacity to respond to the opportunities offered by localism. This lack of capacity stems in part from a dependency culture resulting from decades of ‘done to’ psychology, long term unemployment, and, the simple fact that, for those with get up and go, the struggle to get through the day absorbs all their energy. What these communities therefore need is extra support both from the public sector and property sector professionals.

The Notting Hill Riots have demonstrated the value of culture in restoring people’s faith in the city where they live. This is a moment to reflect on the value of those aspects of our lives that, while they are difficult to measure, are nevertheless of great value and, for some, the difference between a life of productive activity and a long prison sentence.

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